Tsukemono: Healthy Japanese Pickles
The humble tsukemono (漬物) or Japanese pickle are often overlooked in Japanese cuisine but are in fact a huge contributor to a healthy Japanese diet. Known for increasing ‘gut flora’ and dietary fibre, tsukemono are vegetables, fruits or even flowers made from preserving and fermenting delicious seasonal fruit and vegetables in a pickling brine such as soy sauce, sake, rice vinegar or simply covered with a preserving ingredient such as salt. They add a crunchy, tangy, salty and sometimes spicy kick to your food and we can’t get enough of them!
An ancient history
Tsukemono is an essential ingredient to Japanese food culture and has been since medieval times when pickling fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer became an easy way to preserve food for the cold winters.
Indeed, we know of many cultures around the world that make their own unique kind of pickles, from kimchi in Korea to sauerkraut in Germany, however, no other country has the kind of variety of pickles than Japan. There are believed to be around 4,000 varieties of pickles! Yep, that’s a lot of pickles, so it’s no surprise they are eaten with pretty much every meal.
Why are pickles so good for you?
Studies on fermented foods have shown how highly rated they are for their rich nutritional value and for providing your body with a healthy dose of probiotics. These are live micro-organisms that are important for digestion and gastrointestinal health.
Tsukemono uses an age-old preservation process that can take many forms and they’re known to provide numerous health benefits such as vitamins, fibre and antioxidants. Tsukemono is a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine and a healthy diet wouldn’t be the same without them. It’s important to note that pickling in vinegar is not the same natural fermentation process that produces probiotics from “lactobacillus bacteria” using a brine of salt and water. These beneficial bacteria offer all sorts of health benefits, from clearer skin, increased immune function and cardiovascular health.
Tsukemono comes in all shapes, colours and flavours. From fukujinzuke, a pickled assortment of aubergine, daikon radish, cucumber and lotus root used to accompany curried rice; to sushi where gari or pickled ginger is commonly eaten as a palate cleanser; to our favourite lunchtime snack in the form of a sour umeboshi plum pickle hidden inside a fluffy Onigiri rice ball. There endless ways to eat your tsukemono.
This also means there is an abundance of ways in which a fruit or vegetable can become a pickle! Whether it’s using salt, kelp (seaweed), rice bran, miso, yeast, soy sauce and more, the process of pickling concentrates the flavour of the vegetables and transforms them into something unexpectedly delicious!
Quick & easy Japanese pickles to get you started
The best thing about tsukemono is that they are incredibly easy to make at home using your favourite vegetables and pantry ingredients. Let’s take a look at a few healthy and tasty ways of preparing tsukemono!
Shiozuke is by far the simplest Japanese pickle to make. We recommend using fresh, seasonal vegetables with a crisp texture, like cucumber, daikon, carrot or aubergine. For ease, use a Kasumi Kuro 17 cm Santoku knife to thinly slice your vegetables into bite-sized pieces.
The sliced vegetables are then soaked in a sea salt brine and weighed down for 6 to 12 hours. Make sure to rinse off the brine before serving and enjoy the pickles with Japanese steamed rice and miso soup.
For an extra boost of umami richness, pickle your seasonal vegetables with miso paste. This miso pickling method helps preserve your vegetables for longer and can also be used for fish and different meats. Misozuke is made by first mixing a Misodoko, or marinade of miso (red miso is the most commonly used), sake and mirin.
Your chosen veg are then covered and vigorously rubbed in the marinade and refrigerated. The length of pickling time depends on the chosen vegetable, softer vegetables take 2-3 hours whilst harder vegetables take 2-3 days. Wipe off any excess paste and slice into bite-sized pieces using a well-made cutting knife such as the Kai Shun Premier 14cm Santoku knife before serving with a hearty bowl of Japanese steamed rice.
We love to use a soy sauce base for pickling our favourite leafy green vegetables. The sweet and salty flavours that come from a mix of soy sauce, mirin or sugar and rice vinegar pairs perfectly with bok choy and Japanese mustard spinach.
This method is similar to Shiozuke and only takes 3 steps. First, chop a hand full of leafy veg into 2-inch pieces using a knife such as the Global G G-48 Santoku 18cm Fluted knife, then submerge the greens in the pickling agent with weights and refrigerate for up to 6 hours. That’s it! Squeeze out the remaining liquid from the vegetables and you are ready to serve and enjoy.